QotW #10: Carrying Out an IT Audit

2011-09-23 by . 0 comments

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This week, a newly-minted master’s degree holder asked on our site, “[How do I go about] Carrying out a professional IT audit procedure?” That’s a really big question in one sentence. In trying to break that down to some parts we can address, let’s look at the perspective people involved in an audit might see.

Staff at an audit client interact with auditors who ask a lot of questions off of a script that is usually referred to as a work plan. Many times, they ask you to open the appropriate settings dialogs or configuration files and show them the configuration details that they are interested in. Management at an audit client will discuss what systems beforehand and the managers for the auditors will select or create appropriate work plans.

The quality, nature, and scope of work plans vary widely, and a single audit will often involve the use of many different plans. Work plans might be written by the audit company or available from regulatory bodies, standards organizations, or software vendors. One example of a readily-available plan is the PCI DSS 2.0 standard. That plan displays both high-level overviews and mid-level configuration requirements across a broad spectrum. Low-level details would be operating system or application specific. Many audit plans related to banking applications have granular detail about core system configuration settings. Also have a look at this question about audit standards for law firms for an example from a different industry showing similarities and differences.

While some plans are regulatory-compliance related, most are best-practices focused. All plans are written with best practices in mind, and for those who are new to the world of IT security, that’s the most challenging part about them. There is no universal standard; many plans greatly overlap, but still differ. If the auditor is appropriately considering their client’s needs, they’ll almost certainly end up marking parts of plans as not applicable or not compliant yet okay because of mitigating circumstances.

Another challenging point for those new to auditing is the sometimes hard-to-grasp concept is the separation between objectives and controls. An objective might be to ensure that each authenticates to their own account. Controls listed in a work plan might include discussion about password expiry requirements to help prevent shared account passwords (among other things). Don’t get crossed-up focusing on the control if the objective is met through some other means – perhaps everybody is using biometric authentication instead. There are too many instances of this in the audit world, and it’s a common mistake among newer auditors.

From a good auditor’s perspective, meeting the goals of the work plan might be considered 60% of the goal of the work. An auditor’s job isn’t complete unless they’re looking at the whole organization. Some examples: to fulfill a question about password change requirements, the auditor should ask an administrator, see the configuration and ask users about it (“When was the last time the system made you change your password?”). To review a system setting, the auditor should ask to see settings in a general manner, adding detail only as needed: “Can you show me the net effect of policies on this user’s account?” as opposed to “Start->run->rsop.msc”. Users reporting different experiences about password resets than the system configuration shows or a system administrator who fumbles their way around for everything won’t ever be in the work plan, but it will be a concern.

With that background in mind, here are some general steps to performing an IT audit procedure:

  • Meet with management and determine their needs. You should understand many of the possible accepted risks before you begin the engagement. For example, high-speed traders may stand to lose more money by implementing a firewall than not.
  • Select appropriate audit plans based on available resources and your own relevant work.
  • Properly review the controls with the objectives they meet in mind. Use multiple references when possible, and always try to confirm any settings directly.
  • Pay attention to the big picture. Things should “feel right.”
  • Review your findings with management and consider their thoughts on them. Many times the apparent severity of something needs to be adjusted.
  • At the end of the day, sometimes a business unit may accept the risk from a weak control, despite it looking severe to you as an auditor. That is their prerogative, as long as you have correctly articulated the risks

The last part of that, auditors reviewing findings with client management, takes the most finesse and unexplainable skill. Does your finding really matter? How can you smooth things over and still deliver over 100 findings? At the end of the day, experience and repetition is the biggest part of delivering professional work, and that’s regardless of the kind of work.

Some further starting points for more detail can be found at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_technology_audit_process and http://ithandbook.ffiec.gov/.

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